In my day-to-day work as a nutrition and fitness professional, I am constantly monitoring the bombardment of food and nutrition media hype that seems to come at us every day. (If any of these fads really worked, we would all be in perfect shape.) What is emerging as a focus of nutrition research is the study of food and our brain health, and the relationship with our microbiome.
Gut health and brain health are intertwined. Can eating blueberries and doing crosswords stave off dementia? We are not sure, but it certainly can’t hurt. You know that "gut feeling" you get when something is wrong? GI distress when life isn't going well? Total brain fog when you are hungry, angry, or lonely? These are perfect examples of how that tummy signals the brain as a call to action.
The brain is fed by the gut and how well nutrients are absorbed by the GI tract play a role in cognition. Your individual GI tract has its own unique microbiome made of billions of living microbes also referred to as intestinal flora, that influence your digestion, immune system, mood, cognitive function, metabolic rate, and even the way you age. The composition of each person’s microbiome depends on diet, stress level, environment, age, and other factors. If you’re feeling creeped out, don’t be! Your microbiome is extremely important. Here are 5 things you should know about it. Your microbiome helps you digest food Digestion, enzymes that help us digest healthy sugars, and they are also responsible for providing us with B vitamins, vitamin K, and short chain fatty acids. Thus, they are responsible for helping influence the nutritional value of the food we eat.
Your microbiome helps boost your immune system There’s a lot of interaction between your immune system and the bacteria in your gut, your microbiota mediates the relationship. Meaning, it teaches your immune system which invaders are friends or foes. This helps keep your body from attacking friendly gut bacteria needed for digestion. These microbes also stimulate tissue around the gut to increase production of antibodies when needed.
Your microbiome influences your mental health The brain and the gut are connected via the vagus nerve, enteric nervous system, and the gut-brain axis. Your gut microbiota interacts with your central nervous system to regulate brain chemistry. That’s right, your gut bacteria can affect your response to stress, anxiety, and even your memory. Research has shown that gut bacteria influences serotonin and dopamine production. Serotonin doesn’t just make you feel happy, it aids in digestion as well. In fact, 90% of your body’s serotonin can be found in your gut.
Your microbiome promotes healthy skin Our skin is covered in a biofilm of microbes that form a protective layer over us. These microbes protect us from bacterial and fungal invasion. They also convert skin oils into natural moisturizers that keep our skin healthy.
Your microbiome protects you from toxins Gut bacteria is responsible for keeping toxins from passing through the intestinal wall and into your bloodstream.
Microbiota is also responsible for:
Controlling metabolism and nutrient storage
Maintaining tissue integrity
Controlling blood pressure
Eat a Variety of Nutritious Foods from All Food Groups to keep you gut microbiome strong.
Pay attention to the food that you consume each day. Nutrient-rich foods have vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other nutrients but are lower in calories. To get the nutrients you need, the staples in your diet should be primarily vegetables fruits, eating a variety of brightly colored produce. The richer the color, the higher the levels of phytonutrients. The color pigment is where the nutritional value lies. Green leaves, yellow, orange, and red vegetables and fruits, bean varieties, and citrus fruits are all great sources with a high nutritional value that you can consume every day.
Unrefined whole-grain foods contain fiber, and that can help lower your blood cholesterol and help you feel full, which may help you manage your weight. Beans are a great source of both fiber and protein as a standalone, or in the absence of meat. Eating large amounts of high-fat foods adds excess calories, which can lead to weight gain and obesity. Emphasize fats from healthier sources, such as eggs, low fat cheeses, vegetable oils, nuts, olives, and dairy products.
Eat fish at least twice a week. Recent research shows that eating oily fish containing omega-3 fatty acids may help lower your risk of death from coronary artery disease. Examples of oily fish include salmon, trout, tuna, swordfish, mackerel, herring, sardines, and anchovies.
If you drink alcohol, drink in moderation. That means one drink per day, preferably when you are in for the night, so you stay safe.
Last, but not least, hydrate!
Having said all that, let talk about the practicality of eating well. No fast food, no junk food, no sodas or sugary drinks, no fried food, and no processed food. As noted, this will get us 90% of the way there. Many also suggest limiting or eliminating “white” foods, such as white sugar, white rice, white flour, and all their associated products.
There comes a point in our lives that we want to enjoy, we spent so many years dieting and stressed about how we eat, now what? Here is what I say to everyone:
Love every moment of your life!
When you eat, savor every bite, even if you are on a restricted diet due to medical issues, mindful eating enhances every meal a hundred-fold.
Chew your food very slowly.
Sip your wine, don't gulp.
Make hydration a part of every meal and all your activities during the day.
These habits will make life more pleasurable, keep your body and mind calm, and will repair and restore the gut microbiome because we are not approaching eating with angst!!
Ask yourself these questions (it’s not a test, just things to ponder):
What does “Healthy Eating” mean to you?
How closely do you adhere to what you think of as a “healthy eating” plan?
Have you started to cut back on sugar, flour, fried foods, processed food, sugary drinks?
What would help you to do so?
Do you understand the importance of the various nutrients in food?
Do you take vitamin and mineral supplements?
Have you started tracking your food? Whatever system you use, are you consistent, and honest, in tracking everything you eat?
Do you prepare most of your meals at home?
Do you read labels and menus carefully when eating out?
What techniques have you used to resist foods you know are bad for you when they’re pushed on you by well-meaning family and friends or if you’re at an event?
Have you tried group programs like Weight Watchers or Overeaters Anonymous? Do you benefit from the group support?
Have you begun to increase your cardiovascular activity to burn more calories? What about doing weight training to raise your metabolic rate, so you continue to burn calories even at rest?
Women Beyond a Certain Age is an award-winning weekly podcast with Denise Vivaldo. She brings her own lively, humorous, and experienced viewpoint to the topics she discusses with her guests. The podcast covers wide-ranging subjects of importance to older women.